Wednesday, March 30, 2005

“Tastes Great! Less Filling!”

What we do is mind work. And mind work can build a bridge as well as take one down. It can regulate. It can liberate. Harvard University produced a JFK and a Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber. A writing center session may be wave; it may be particle; it may be “tastes great!”or it may be “less filling!”

Bill and I call this polyvalence.

We believe that the regulation/liberation question that has dominated the writing center conversation for so many years has worn out its usefulness, has trapped us, and that we have to get unstuck. In earlier times when we were finding ourselves, articulating our feelings of dislocation and isolation was a natural part of our discipline’s development. That period that Terrance Riley accurately labeled “frustration” gave us reason to vent and represents a predictable phase in our growth.

But how we feel is not the same as what we do. And let’s face it, outside our community, nobody cares how we feel. And they shouldn’t. (Do we really care how car mechanics as a group really feel? Or accountants? Or, you name it.) We can’t define ourselves for others (who want and need to know what we do) by saying how we feel.

My guess is that nothing of this comes as a great surprise to most of you, but my guess, too, is that we have not replaced most prevailing, oppositional theory because we haven’t had anything to replace it with. Bill and I argue that writing center work is rooted in critical inquiry, that ours is a discipline of methodologies, and that our work in the academy is equivalent to the plaster that holds together a mosaic’s tiles. That’s our perspective (both less filling and great taste!).

Every theory is a work in progress, a part of an evolving conversation, so rather than write about what our theory is (We hope you’ve read it) I want to propose criteria for a useful theory, yours or ours. We’re interested in what you think.

I truly feel that we are on the cusp of a very promising future. But that future begins with a theory that we can turn to when we get stuck.

That theory in my mind must do these things. First, it must be comprehensive; it
must serve the need we’ve not been able to fill: It must give us a framework for the argument that we have to make, that every academic constituent player on a campus is asked to make. To do so, it must break down the binaries that characterize prevailing theory, the us-against-them framework that unifies most of the past twenty years. In other words, we have to accept the obvious—that we can’t continue defining ourselves by what we are not.

Second, theory must embrace the polyvalence of what we do, acknowledge that at times we serve the powers that be and at other times we liberate students from those same powers. We have to accept and explain in logical terms that we often work toward uncertain ends. If physicists can accept the uncertainty that light is sometimes wave and sometime particles, I think we ought to be able to accept that the work we do might serve the status quo or it might help to one day overthrow the status quo.

That theory must be a descriptive discourse, not an expressive discourse. We have to, as Jo Koster from Winthrope University has written, find a way to describe what we do and how and why we do it to those people and agencies that need to know, whose job it is to administer to the whole of campus life.

On a day-to-day basis, that theory should guide and reflect our everyday practices by describing those things we know work for students and by feeding our imaginations to discover new methods.

What I’m getting at here is a unified theory that is consistent, one that holds things together and guides us, one that describes a tutorial event, one that explains why we use the methods we use and why those methods work, a comprehensive theory that provides us with inventive and useful assessment devices that accurately describe what we do and that are relatively easy to present to faculty and administrators.

In the end, our theory should give us a way to openly and honestly display our very important contributions to the collective endeavors of the institution, principally the intellectual and personal growth of the students it exists to serve. Hopefully that theory would embrace the skeptical sensibilities of the outsider and retain the revolutionary spirit that nurtures creative thinking.

Finally, I would say a new theory must also account for the theory it replaces, taking preceding theory into the fold of the new and retaining what it has given us that is useful and sustaining. For like Terrance Riley, I do believe that we have to look at our past and our future by way of a developmental model.

Isn’t writing center work essentially “mind work”? Isn’t a tutorial event essentially an exercise in “critical inquiry”?

On Friday, I’ll play around with some possibilities for how a shift in perspectives might help us get unstuck.



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